Goal scoring gets everyone’s attention, but hockey is a sport where the dirty work is just as important and not much work is less desirable than that of blocking shots.
Because of their position, defensemen always lead the National Hockey League and their teams in blocked shots. Up front, forwards must have a special desire to get in front when a blueliner is cranking one up. Fortunately, the Sharks have two of the NHL’s best.Joe Pavelski
’s 33 blocked shots have him sitting seventh in the NHL and right behind him is Logan Couture
at ninth with 32.
“They’re always in the play and they want to block shots,” Head Coach Todd McLellan said. “It’s a choice. You get to make a decision. There are some players who can make it look pretty darn good, but they aren’t going to get hit by the puck. That’s league-wide. These two want to be in the lane all the time. It shows they have pretty good hockey sense.”
The hockey sense is one thing, but you have to have the toughness to go with it.
“You need both qualities,” McLellan said.
Thinking about blocking shots is always part of a player’s mental preparation for a game.
“There are times where you almost have to be aware of it before the game,” Pavelski said. “You have to make a commitment to want to do it, especially with the way some of the guys are shooting the puck.”
Couture and Pavelski take regular shifts shorthanded and that helps the shot blocking cause.
“The penalty kill is a prime opportunity for a blocked shot and they’re two of our better penalty killers,” McLellan said. “I also think that being a centerman puts you closer to a blocked shot. When you’re a wing, you don’t get that initial chance to block a shot. The guy who takes the faceoff is right in the middle of everything.”
The Sharks PK units don’t have to dive down on every shorthanded shift, but when the occasion calls for it, that’s the only other option.
“There are still those times where it breaks down and you have to sacrifice,” Pavelski said. “It’s a mentality of not wanting to let the puck get by you.”
Some players have the trait ingrained in them while others acquired the skill over time. Pavelski said that while he was always willing to block shots, the level of determination went up while playing for the University of Wisconsin.
“In college, that’s where it really started,” Pavelski said. “You have a facemask, so people are a lot braver. You see the guys that really want to block shots and they’re diving with their face in front. There’s no worry.”
Couture has a passion for blocking shots.
“I’ve always loved blocking shots,” he said. “They don’t feel too good, but there’s a sense of pride. I love doing it.”
How can one love blocking a frozen piece of rubber traveling more than 90 miles an hour?
“You’ve got to be a little bit smarter,” Pavelski said. “There are certain ways you can get down there and still feel smart doing it.”
Unlike other sports, in hockey, when you line up an opponent, you’re directly between them and the scoring opportunity. In hockey, a shot blocker must angle off the attacker a bit.
“Knowing where the net is and where you are on the ice and where the puck is going to be,” Pavelski said of what’s important. “You’re lining up off the body, but just a little bit.”
NHLers have the best equipment in the world, but there are times where the vulcanized rubber is going to win the battle. They do have memories of blocking the shot, but losing the battle.
“The last one in Nashville didn’t feel very good, but that wasn’t the worst,” Pavelski said. “Last year at the start of the second game against Anaheim, I broke my foot. That was the worst pain. Knowing when you took (your foot) out of the skate that it wasn’t going back in.”
“In St. Louis (in the last game), I got one on top of the knee and it’s the worst one so far (in the NHL),” Couture said. “In junior, we were in Kingston and I slid and got one right off the ankle. No broken bones, but it really hurt.”
The forwards may feel the pain, but the efforts are appreciated by those who benefit the most: the goaltenders.
“It’s huge. You look at every good team and they block a lot of shots. I hate to say it, but we goalies need that,” Antero Niittymaki said. “There are a lot of times you don’t see the puck because there’s traffic all over the place. The more we block shots, the more games we’ll win.”
On one of Couture’s best recent blocks, he came over like a netminder himself and prevented a tally.
“I remember a great block from Couture,” Antti Niemi
said. “There was a pass form the corner to the D and he slid and kicked it out. I asked him about it later and he said he likes playing goalie outdoors.”
“The one where I came out like a goalie,” Couture said, agreeing with Niemi. “I turned it over so I wanted to get out there to stop it. I know he would have saved it, but I wanted to make sure I got it.”
So if the Sharks had a situation arise where neither Niittymaki nor Niemi couldn’t play, and a fill in could not get to San Jose on time, would the Sharks top goal scorer be sacrificed to play in net?
“If we had the same thing, we would put Couture in,” Niemi said about a recent situation where Phoenix was forced to call in a netminder from the local recreation leagues. “In that situation, we might have to do it.”
“I’d do it,” Couture said, looking back at Niemi. “In road hockey, I was always the goalie. I always wanted to be the goalie. I wasn’t stupid enough to throw the pads on and get pucks shot at me all the time.”
Niemi said that maybe Couture’s goalie skills are why he’s leading the Sharks in goals.
“He likes to be the goalie in road hockey, so he knows the soft spots,” Niemi said.
Whatever position Pavelski and Couture play, they play an important role in keeping down the Sharks goal-against-average.
Defenseman Douglas Murray
skated at practice on Monday and is moving towards a return soon.
“He’ll be awfully close. I’ll get a report from our training staff in the morning and we’ll see,” McLellan said about his availability for the Tuesday night game vs. Edmonton.
The Sharks will play hosts to Edmonton Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. and tickets can be found at the HP Pavilion Ticket Office and at www.ticketmaster.com. The contest will be available on CSN California, 98.5 KFOX and www.sjsharks.com.